Guest blogger Charlene Engleking reflects on her experience at the 2011 AWP Conference:
As anyone who has attended writing conferences can confirm, such conclaves are a weird mix of enthusiasm and arrogance. AWP probably amplifies the vibe because of the number of attendees. One speaker announced that more than 2,300 scholarships were awarded to students wanting to attend. Of course, that prompted me to start looking at the shoes and purses of the students to see how many seemed well funded, quite a few actually. Established writers (true members of the Canon), writers whose names are vaguely familiar, writers whose names may become familiar, and writers whose mothers will continue to be their only fans all rushed through the lobby, laughed in groups waiting for elevators, and filled nearby restaurants. The Journal Editors (uppercase identification required) were mostly accessible and clearly aware of their power.
I was both inspired and annoyed by the various programs. One panel discussion was so energizing I wanted only to find a corner to start revising a current project. Another, pedagogical in focus, was a waste of time as three panelists read from their essays (I can buy the book thank you) and a fourth announced that she had prepared her presentation that morning on her iPhone. I think her fellow panelists shared my annoyance.
Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz were perfect counterpoints on Thursday and Friday nights respectively. Each writes of growing up as The Other and each spoke of how that has informed their writing. Both spoke of the need for connection – person and surroundings (alien in both cases)/child and parent/writer and reader.
Lahiri spoke specifically about “writing as an act of willfulness” as a means of identifying and claiming the self. Her soft spoken presentation compelled the auditorium to listen carefully to engage in her process. Her professed “leap from listening to saying listen to me” was particularly meaningful as the audience experienced that leap with her.
Diaz blew in Friday night and owned the room. While Lahiri was polite and gentle, Diaz was profane and animated. I was sorry that I couldn’t see the interpreter signing the presentation. How does one sign “An ass that could throw the moon out of gravity?” Is there a sign for the F-word combined with mother? Diaz read a new piece that he introduced as, “At that stage where it works, but it ain’t effing cute…the literary equivalent of a snuggy.” Of course, he didn’t use “effing”.
Saturday night’s Center Ring speaker was Kay Ryan. I know a lot of poets don’t consider her worthy of Poet Laureate status, but I like accessible poetry. Slam me with an obscure unrhymed set of words if it makes you feel better. I’ll probably like that poem too. As a speaker, Ryan was accessible. She spoke of being out of sync as a rhyming poet. She also noted that with no references to any body fluids she was surprised that she ever found a publisher. Her best speaking technique? She repeated several of her poems. How many poetry readings have I attended that I would have loved for a rerun of a poem to better savor it?
Would I recommend attending AWP next year in Chicago? Probably. I would also recommend attending with friends. It is a weirdly cliquish gathering that annoyed as well as inspired me; but, now when I write the cover letter for a submission, I will add, “It was such a pleasure to meet you at AWP” which I was assured during one panel would enhance the likelihood of publication.